Shame and Learning

"Shame leads to abandonment of learning." I heard this phrase earlier today in a seminar at MBP, with a lecturer named Xavi, who is a successful basketball coach and coach educator. Suddenly, years of ideas and feelings clicked, as this one phrase succinctly encapsulated and explained a concept I've been trying to more eloquently tackle for over a decade now.


Too many coaches and parents use shame when trying to teach, yet it ends up having the reverse effect. We have seen it, and ridiculed it, a thousand times. When a team loses or under performs, the coach will make them run a clichéd series of laps, or perform a demeaning number of press-ups. Why? Because we believe that punishment is an effective form of motivation. I'm not going to go into the wider connotations of that sentiment, I'm just going to stick to a football context here.


The best way I can describe it is this. An example I have shared countless times. In 2018 I was on a goalkeeper coaching course in Illinois. After lunch, making our way back to the field, I was walking at the front of a group of coaches. I'm not a keeper, nor am I a keeper coach, although I have dabbled as it adds a string to my bow. I do these courses to gain more knowledge to make me a more well rounded coach. The coaches behind me were talking about a common mistake we'd seen many of our keepers make, which was to cross their legs over when moving laterally across the goal. The idea being that one should side step, as it is easier to both dive and also change direction, and that crossing your legs and effectively walking sideways leads to lessening your ability to push off for a dive, or pivot to change direction.


These coaches were talking about how frustrated they would become when they see their goalkeepers make that mistake. One coach then remarked "When I see my keepers do that, I make them do push-ups!" Her fellow coaches beamed in admiration, for you see, in an American sporting context, "drop and give me twenty" solves all problems. Late to practice? Drop and give me twenty. Conceded from a corner? Drop and give me twenty. Had to borrow a pair of shorts? Drop and give me twenty. While the others were in awe of her revolutionary approach, I had to interject. At this point in my life, I was starting to become big enough and ugly enough that I was able to assert myself in situations where I feel there had been an injustice.


"So wait, hold on a second. When your players make a mistake, instead of coaching them on how to do it better, you punish them? And then wonder why they keep making the same mistake?" The conversation quickly died, and I became a pariah for the rest of the course. Was I wrong for not believing it was the player's fault? Are mistakes really inseparable from effort, or are they perhaps linked to some technical fault, or maybe a flaw in the decision making? It seems radical, I know.


I had many similar encounters in Missouri. One evening, between sessions, I went around observing the other coaches at the club. Seeing dad coaches in their cargo shorts and MLB t-shirts, who can't tell their Manchesters from their "Byron" Munichs abandon our club curriculum was heart-breaking. Nevertheless, it did give me ample material for post-training therapy sessions with other red-pilled coaches. On this one night in question, I was observing the local legend. A guy who played pro indoor, and was once invited to an MLS combine. Regardless of the weekly topic, the age or ability of the players, he did the exact same training session, with only slight variations. Below is a representation of his masterpiece.

Just so you can understand this complex drill, it goes like this. Four lines of about four players. Players with a ball each. The player will run to the cone and back a few times before then shooting into an empty net. They grab their ball, and return to the back of the line. The variations may be having to do a skill or a turn at the cone, or sometimes running the first length without the ball and doing a press-up at the cone. The only real challenge was to hit the back of the net without the ball touching the ground. In between checking his phone and sipping a Red Bull, Coach would remind the players that "this is what the pros do!" While contributing helpful remarks such as "Come on, ladies!" Occasionally, to spice things up, he'd use two goals, but his quarter of the pitch would always look like this. Whether it was with U6 novices, or top U16 players competing at a state level. They'd do this for half an hour, and then break into a game, in which he'd offer the same coaching points as before (come on, ladies!) to consolidate the learning.


I digress, but I feel it is important for you to know what I was looking at at this moment. And what I saw for three hours a day, four nights a week, for nine months. While I'm watching the session and wondering how such a tool is not only so highly regarded locally, but also making such a decent living off of youth coaching, I was beckoned by some parents. "Hey Will, come watch this guy. You could learn a thing or two." It was well intentioned and not meant to be demeaning. I'd been there for a week, the parents didn't know anything about me, and they revered this guy. Bear in mind, at this point in time, I'd obtained a master's in coaching, the B license, the youth award, and had coached in six countries. I was intrigued as to how this conversation would go.


The parents began to outline to me their admiration for this coach, reminding me several times how he'd played pro, and listed all the things his teams had won over the years. Unable to see that the club knew his name carried locally, and thus were able to attract good players to whichever team they assigned him, who then went on to win in spite of his coaching, I just went along with the parents. "Oh right. Wow. Is that so?"


Then they gave me the gold. The story that will stick with me forever. After telling me I could learn a thing or two from this guy, one dad shared a recent occurrence. "Last week, the girls were messing around, so he sent them for laps." He said it in such a way as if it were to blow my mind and completely reshape my world view. The dad expected a reaction from me much like if he were to say "And then the car accelerated to 88mp and disappeared. Boom! Time travel."


I kept a straight face, and just let them continue talking. Likely because my mind had crashed and was now rebooting. This is what happened.

  1. The kids became bored because they were doing the same boring, irrelevant, repetitive, unstimulating, unchallenging drill, that they had been doing twice a week for the past several years.

  2. Their boredom lead them to lose focus, which manifested itself in behaviours such as talking, missing their turns, and making mistakes.

  3. Coach, lacking the ability and self-awareness to spot the flaws in his session design, chose to look outward and blame the learner.

  4. Rather than changing his exercise to be more challenging, engaging, and stimulating, he punished the girls by sending them on several laps of the pitch.

  5. Thus, their time was wasted, although one could argue that laps are just as beneficial to football development as his drill was. And not only that, the girls were made to feel shame.

Shame for what? Imagine going to see a movie, which you then find boring, and being told by the cinema that it is your fault. Likely a poor metaphor, but I feel the reader would be bright enough to receive my point as intended.


Why is shame a bad thing? First and foremost, football is supposed to be fun. It's something we choose to do through intrinsic motivation. Our performances are honest attempts at trying to improve and compete. There's simply no need for shame in any of this.


Yet it also has a detrimental affect. In order to improve, we need our players to leave their comfort zones. If we place shame upon them, they'll revert back to their comfort zones, and will abandon learning. Take singing for example. It's something that takes guts to do in front of other people. If you were laughed at the first time you tried, or told you were awful, you'd likely quit and never try again. You'd opened yourself up in what you thought was a safe environment, only to be laughed at and abused. It would be completely understandable if you abandoned singing.

Most coaches will be familiar with the idea of unconscious incompetence - unconscious competence. In a nutshell, it's the idea that when you become really proficient at something, you don't need to think about it. The example we frequently use her is driving. After driving for several years, it becomes so easy that many of us arrive home and have forgotten large parts of the journey. We switch off. We're either too busy listening to something, or are deep in thought, and before you know it, you're pulling into the driveway.


When we blame, criticise, chastise, punish etc. our players, we can have the effect of pushing them back from unconscious competence to conscious competence, or even conscious incompetence. Our interaction with the player has made them become very conscious of what they're doing, and their desire to avoid mistakes or further punishment can make them panic and underperform, or, as we see frequently with kids, is it can make them revert to the comfort zone. A kid has been learning some dribbling moves, tries it in a game, makes a mistake which leads to a goal, and coach flips his lid. The kid needs support and reassurance, but coach is too busy swearing, breaking clipboards, and stamping on his hat. So either the kid now starts to become nervous and begins messing everything else up too, or they just flat out avoid difficult situations. Don't put in a tackle in case you get beat. Don't dribble in case you lose the ball. Don't try the penetrating pass in case you lose it. The kid begins to play simple balls, or smashes it out of play. They have abandoned their learning of dribbling.


Have you ever encountered a player that you think perhaps doesn't occupy the same reality as the rest of us? The kid that is out of breath after two minutes and can't trap a bag of sand thinks they're going to play for England. Sometimes this is the parents blowing smoke and shielding the child from reality, keeping that kid firmly within their comfort zone. And without smoke blowing parents, it can sometimes be, by choice or otherwise, having avoided situations that expose them to that reality. For instance, going to a private school where there were only thirty kids in our year, I thought I was fairly decent at football. It's not hard when there's only fifteen or so boys, and maybe only ten play football. Of course you're one of the best. It was only when I became older and interacted more with state school kids that I encountered the sad reality of my humbling mediocrity.


What we must be doing as coaches is creating feedback rich environments. Great if we're verbally saying things to players, which we absolutely should do, but in reality, you shouldn't have to tell a player whose shot went over the crossbar that they need to keep it down. This should be self-evident. Our job here is to work on their execution, not put on our Captain Obvious costume and shout "Keep it down!" But how about in our sessions? Are there rewards and consequences that are relevant to football? I don't mean drop and give me twenty if you cross your legs while shuffling, I mean that if a player makes a bad pass, will this give the opposition an opportunity to score a goal? A real game consequence. These must be present within all our exercises.


Back to Missouri. After a while, I began working with a lot of the players who had been crafted by my former pro colleague. And what I'd found is that his drills had crippled their development. I remember quite clearly at one 6v6 indoor tournament, when I first really started to work with many of his padawans, just how shocked I was at their behaviours. In real life games, these girls would take a shot, and then literally stand there. Completely still. No following in for rebounds, no recovering to a defensive position. What had happened to them became clear to see. For two years, two nights a week, they'd been doing that wonder drill. They would run past a cone and kick a ball into an empty net. No receiving of a pass, no beating a defender, no shooting past a keeper, no rebounds, and no loss of possession. How they trained was manifesting itself on the pitch right in front of me. They struggled with transitions because they never had any in their practices. The training exercises were absent of transitions, and then in the training games, all coach did was yell generic Sunday morning dad phrases at them.


Talking about consequences, for years now I've said that a cone won't punish you for a bad touch. That's why I avoid unopposed pattern play with developing players. They lack the game experience to create realistic images in their heads, and so aren't aware of the real game consequences of a bad touch. I'm a huge believer that our exercises have to be as visually rich as possible. "Representative task design." Does the thing they're doing look the way it does on the pitch? Does it involve the right players, spaces, rewards, and consequences?


These players in Missouri didn't actually know they were bad. How could they? They never faced football consequences in their practices, and then won their games at the weekend because they were bigger and faster than their opponents, which is something that counts way too much in the USA. They never experienced feedback from the exercise, such as being tackled or having their shot saved. And they never experienced feedback from the coach, because all he did was tell them to work harder, and punish them with laps if they didn't adhere to one of his arbitrary standards of effort or concentration.


It's no surprise these players weren't intellectually curious about football. No creativity, no spark, just athletic robots who could kick hard and run fast. None of them watched football, or displayed any real interest in it, despite travelling across the state and the region for games and tournaments. It's a lot of time, money, and effort, for something you're only kinda interested in.


The video below is on my must watch list for coaches.

We need to help players to build their inner coach. As coaches, we should be providing feedback to the players, both verbally and through our practice design. However, that feedback should be on top of the feedback they are able to ascertain from themselves. Interacting with the world around them should give them a lot of the feedback they need to improve, if we are helping them to conceptualise and evaluate what is going on.


We can do this through things like question and answer and guided discovery. "Was that a good pass?" Yes/no/maybe and why? What was good? What was bad? What other options are there? Why A instead of B? What happens if? How can we be more successful here? Who should do X and who should do Y? What's our next move? What do we do if it goes wrong?


I love getting philosophical with players in training. To see their little cogs turning when we pause play, or create scenarios is probably the best feeling. It's great when they come up with ideas that extend, enhance, or even go beyond mine. I swell with pride when a player offers a solution that even I didn't see. It shows they're starting to think more deeply about the game, and can see it. And it's a little step further away from coach dependence. It's really sad to see older players, during games, who are still dependent upon their coaches for decisions and feedback. Too many coaches will have failed them along their journeys.


In regards to learning, there are three main obstacles; fear, comparison, and excuses. When categorised as such, they become really easy to identify in our football environments. And for many of us, in schools, and even in some parental dynamics. If we play with fear, we stay in the comfort zone and never try to achieve something new or difficult. Our objective becomes to avoid failure, rather than achieve success. Too much fear, and the player shuts down altogether.


In regards to comparison, one way I would look at it is to stay task oriented or goal oriented. Most of us, in most cases, would favour task oriented. Especially when working with developing players. The result may not always align with the effort exerted or the process elected. Yet if we were to compare the recent Champions League semi final between Real Madrid and Manchester City, if you could be guaranteed all statistics apart from goals, you would have chosen City's. Sometimes in football, you can have all the ball, all the attacks, all the chances, and still lose to a team who has their first shot on target in the 90th minute. The crushed souls of Football Manager players worldwide know this one.


If we get drawn into comparisons, we begin to measure things that may not be important, or things that may not help. For example, in our recent relegation deciding futsal game, we had to avoid defeat by four goals. Our relegation rivals had already played, and were awaiting our result. a 3-0 loss meant relegation, but a 5-2 loss would have meant we were safe (4-1 would have meant going to a playoff). We ended up winning the game 3-1. We kept the players focussed on the task, compartmentalising it into small actions. Can we get our next pass/shot/tackle right? These little wins add up. And using our time outs, we'd break the game into quarters. Can we get through the next quarter? While we ensured the players on the court were task oriented, on the sideline with my assistant, I did become a little goal oriented. Quite literally. Every time we scored, much like in The Chase, I would say to him (not within earshot of the players) "that pushes them back to four." As head coach, it was my job on the day to navigate the game successfully. That meant keeping the players focussed on the task at hand, while I pondered the bigger picture from the side.


Kids naturally compare. Everything from bed times to bad words they're allowed to say in front of their parents. Yet from a learning point of view, it's not always helpful to do. We know that kids have different skills and attributes, and that development is non-linear. This famous meme puts it way more eloquently than my rambling attempts.

For one child, who struggles with maths, achieving a C grade would be like winning the World Cup. For an A student, achieving a B would make them want to be swallowed up by the earth. Success is relative, and we should keep our comparisons relevant. Your only competition should be your previous performance.


Just to rip on my time in Missouri a little more (it's therapeutic, I'm sorry) I would have dads come up to me in the days before the game and tell me things like the upcoming opponent's win:loss record, and what the team's scores were against them in the seasons before I was coach. It was always presented like it was some kind of game winning information, like the Bothan spies who stole the Death Star plans. Okay, so these ten year-olds won three of their last four games. What am I supposed to do with that information? In what way does that affect our preparation for the game? This week's training topic was playing out from the back. Do you know if our next opponents play with a low block? During my time there, I rarely checked the league website. If I did, it was for administrative purposes, never to browse through scores and league positions. Would I have been a more effective coach if I spent more time looking at our U12 division three league table? I can't fathom a case to present that supports that.


As I have become older and wiser, I have tended to avoid clichés when coaching. Such as "you can have results or you can have excuses, but you can't have both." Not that I believe there to be inherently wrong with that sentiment, it's more in the way it is used by coaches who present themselves as Lord of the Practice Arena, as a way to chastise kids for being late when their parents were the ones driving the car. The excuses I'm talking about are the ones that disregard the opportunity for self-reflection in an attempt to preserve ones self-efficacy. Things like we were unlucky, the ref was against us, or something else to do with the pitch, the weather, or the opponents being outright cheats.


Look. As a coach of fourteen years and a referee of sixteen years, the referee never wins or loses the game. Unless the referee volleys the ball into the back of the net for the opponent, they are not the reason you lost. Of course there can be tight games where a referee's decision may impact the outcome, but remember two things; referees don't actually care who wins, and give their decisions based on what they see, so it's never an excuse to forget your basic human decency and act like a dick towards them. Secondly, even when we can prove it was a genuine officiating error, through the use of video after the fact, remember that referees make considerably less mistakes than the players. Instead, begin the self-reflection process. It may have been a dodgy penalty, sure, but why were the opposition in our box? Who gave the ball away? Who didn't track or mark?


I've heard so many post-game team talks over the years, either as the opposition coach, or as a match official, where the vast majority of the talk is regarding the officials. "Don't worry lads, you done well. The ref's a cheat" says the coach whose team lost 6-0. Or "We were unlucky today." At 6-0? Unlucky? Do you know when you're unlucky? Unlucky in football is having 80% possession, ten shots on target from inside the box, and losing 1-0 to a team who had one shot all game, being a speculative effort from thirty yards that slipped through the keeper's gloves. That's my line for luck, not being outclassed in every department by an opponent who ran rampant on you.


What can we do as educators? We are session architects. From the point of view of practice design, we have to make it challenging, stimulating, and rich in realistic visual cues. We're also developers of the environment. Can we do better at creating environments that are absent of shame? Whether that's working with the players to be calmer, more self-aware, and more forgiving of themselves. It could be fighting the parents and getting them to sit down and shut up, and stop using kids' football as their emotional outlet for a week's worth of pent up aggression. Or it could be ourselves. Making sure we are consistently supportive, focussed on long term development, and never forgetting we're interacting with a living, breathing, feeling human being in front of us.

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